Welcome back to another edition of NKB’s Notebook, where I share some observations from the last week’s worth of games. Unfortunately, with the Ottawa Senators having only played two games last week there wasn’t a whole tonne of material to work with. I’m hoping that given an extra couple of days of practice that DJ Smith will be making a few tactical tweaks that will merit a write-up; some of the reports from yesterday’s practice emphasized how much time the Sens spent on the powerplay, for example. I’ll definitely be watching closely the next time Ottawa has a man advantage.
With that being said, I’ve decided to instead turn my focus to a couple of longer-term trends that I think are worth diving into:
Struggles of the Chabot-Zaitsev pairing:
One of the most pleasant surprises of the first part of this season was the somewhat unexpected success of the Thomas Chabot-Nikita Zaitsev pairing. The two struggled together last year, sometimes quite badly, and you may remember that Smith actually elected to start the year with Erik Gudbranson alongside Chabot. Unfortunately the duo were ineffectual, and Smith quickly reverted back to last year’s configuration. For a little while, it worked: over the first twelve games of the year, Chabot and Zaitsev posted a 51.71 CF% and a 50.04 xGF% together. The Sens even boasted a positive goal differential (six scored, five conceded) while they were on the ice together. It may seem like a long time ago now, but the general consensus at the time was that the two were playing well. Zaitsev, in particular, was praised for solidifying his play after last year’s rough showing.
Fast forward to today, and the pair’s metrics for the full season are woeful: a 46.55 CF%, a 44.15 xGF%, and the Sens are -10 in 5v5 goal differential when their top pair takes the ice together. I will note that away from Zaitsev, Chabot is boasting a robust 55.27 CF% and 54.22 xGF% (Zaitsev’s numbers are also a bit improved away from Chabot at 48.84 CF% and 49.41 xGF%*) but the central point here is that the pairing just isn’t working at all. I understand that Smith is hesitant to break up Mike Reilly and Artem Zub given their incredible success together, and the other options on the right side are very unappealing, but it’s hard to see how playing the first pair as many minutes as they are is a sustainable proposition. We have one and a half seasons’ worth of evidence that, for a variety of reasons, Zaitsev and Chabot just don’t work together. What Smith does to try to get them going, or how he shuffles his pairings, will be one of the most interesting tactical stories of the back half of the year.
Reilly and Zub Successes
One pairing that is working very well together is the aforementioned Reilly and Zub duo. There are lots of little things that each defender is doing well, but something that I’ve noticed in watching their play is how well they complement each other when one of them is going back to retrieve the puck to start a breakout. Regular readers of this space will know that I’ve written about Zub’s stellar gap control on a couple of occasions; one of the immediate benefits of this strength is that teams are forced to chip ‘n’ chase a lot more than they’d like. Furthermore, Reilly’s become quite adept at reading those types of play develop, and immediately turning to get the puck and start the breakout. I don’t have any definitive metrics to quantify this, but I’d be willing to bet good money that the Sens transition out of their zone very well whenever teams try to get the puck in deep against this duo. In this same vein, I’ve also been impressed with how well they work together in cycling the puck back against the grain to beat the forecheck, or sometimes even exit by making a five foot pass to their partner waiting in front of the net. Rare is the time that either throws the puck off the glass just for the sake of getting it out. If it only takes one attempt to breakout successfully, you’ll do a lot less defending in the long run.
With Chabot and Zaitsev, it feels like the Sens are getting less than the sum of their parts right now; with Reilly and Zub, you could make a compelling case they are getting a lot more.
*editor’s note: the original version of this article had incorrect stats for Zaitsev away from Chabot, they have been updated with the correct measures.